Last year, I interviewed the spokesman of the Mysterious Package Company about their Kickstarted project The Century Beast. The company was doing a form of object-based storytelling that struck me as really fascinating, though — as they also encouraged secrecy around their projects — it was hard to get exact details about what one could expect.
Since then, their Kickstarter has been successful and they’ve been sending out Century Beast packages. I bought a Bronze version of that experience for myself, less deluxe but also less exceptionally expensive than some of the other tiers of the experience. I’ve also heard from a few other people who bought MPC products after reading my interview. I’ve come away thinking the idea is still pretty interesting but that the execution is a mix of excellent, the less-than-excellent, and the problematic.
I’d like to talk about all of that, though I’m conscious of the need not to spoil too much, so I’ll avoid specifics as I do when writing about escape rooms.
I’ll start with the problematic first. A few weeks ago I heard from IF author and reviewer Lynnea Glasser that she’d ordered the Mysterious Package Company’s King in Yellow package and that she’d been distressed to find that it contained some casual racism, and that she hadn’t gotten any response at all when contacting the company about her experience.
By email she filled me in a little more about that: at a couple of points, the story uses non-western ethnicity as a marker of other-worldly evil. That’s a common trope in the Lovecraft stories from which the experience may be drawing, but Lovecraft’s wild racism is, I think it’s fair to say, not a feature many of us want to see emulated and perpetuated in contemporary Lovecraftian stories. (I forget to what degree Chambers deploys racist tropes; I recall more classism, off the top of my head.)
(Obligatory reminder: I am not saying everything problematic must be Purged With Fire. I am also not saying it’s impossible to like things that participate in these problems. At the same time I think it’s worth pointing them out.)
So there’s that. Another thing I’ve been hearing, and seeing firsthand, is that MPC’s published delivery timelines tend to be optimistic. Things often arrive weeks or months later than the initial schedule suggests they will. If you want to time something for a loved one’s birthday or Christmas present, and it’s important for that to be timely, this may not be the route for you. I’m personally probably more tolerant about this than some people would be. I’m old enough to remember a time when, if you ordered something from a company far away, you could expect it to turn up in four to six weeks, not the next morning via Amazon Prime. And I realize that the latter form of rapid delivery is the result of an extremely automated and corporate system that is not necessarily so easy to emulate if you’re a tiny company, and especially if you’re a tiny company making unusual hard-to-source objects. But if you’re placing orders, you might still want to know.
All that said, the packages I got had a number of impressive aspects. There were quite a number of different documents, on different papers, stylized and weathered as circumstances required. There were period magazine pages with advertisements lightly parodying the advertisements of the time. There was a small physical prop that felt solid and beautiful. There were some interactive elements too — sealed packets that had to be opened, an audio recording on a USB stick — and these gave the transgressive thrill that always comes from art you have to damage to experience.
Having at one point done some IF feelie development of my own (and much less skillfully), I recognize that a huge amount of work must have gone into designing and sourcing each of these pieces. The production values on these could out-compete most of the Infocom feelies, though I would say that Infocom feelies with a few exceptions tended not to take themselves at all seriously, which gave a very different tone to the experience. A possible exception were the feelies for Deadline, which I remember regarding with a reverential awe when I was a child because I was convinced this was exactly what police evidence would really be like.
I did find myself wishing for more from the Mysterious Package Company’s writing, though. The story told through all these objects was a story of characters in peril — I don’t think that constitutes much of a spoiler — and despite the meticulous work that had gone into creating their paper and penmanship, I was less persuaded by what they wrote. The characters and their situations felt like tropes only lightly inhabited by personality or uniqueness. In journal articles and letters and audio tracks, they described things happening that would indeed be very upsetting, but there wasn’t much by way of subtext or characteristic detail; I didn’t feel like I knew these people enough to be invested in their dangers. They were A Vacationer, A Loving Father, and so on.
I’m afraid I’m not alone here; Room Escape Artist’s review of the writing in King in Yellow is not encouraging either. (Did MPC perhaps underestimate how much writing skill would actually be needed for this project? They wouldn’t be the first in the games/puzzle space to do so.)
Then there’s the structure of the thing. This may just be the fact that I got the Bronze package and not the Silver or Gold which would have contained more mailings and more things, but I also felt that the set was a oddly distributed in terms of pacing. There were two mailings, one containing very little information and barely enough to provoke my curiosity about the story, and the other a crate containing all the other documents and objects all at once. Possibly the Gold experience — which I believe is the thing now sold on MPC’s website if you were to order The Century Beast from scratch — would be more intriguingly paced. Effectively, since these packages are not relying on the recipient solving puzzles to get the main sense of the story, they’re using real-time (mailing) delays instead, but the story needs more than two revelation points to work best.
Finally, and again I’m not sure whether this is a quirk of my own experience, there was something about the items I was sent that suggested to me that I might find an online tie-in. But investigating this led me nowhere. Did I read in too much, or not enough? I don’t know, but the overall feeling was a bit of a let-down. (There was an email address I could have tried emailing, too, but somehow that seemed like an extremely unnerving thing to do, so I refrained.)
I hope this doesn’t sound like a completely unalleviated string of complaints. My feelings are probably best described as Very Mixed. I don’t expect to order any more mysterious packages soon: they’re very expensive, especially if ordered to the UK, and relative to the story provided. On the other hand, I have lots of love for the object-manufacturing skill and for the basic concept of this.
I hope they will iron out their delivery process a bit, and bring on more writing support — ideally someone who will bring a critical eye to the implicit prejudices in whatever source material they may currently be adapting.